S Korea raises virus alert level to ‘highest’ as cases surge

SEOUL (AFP) – South Korea is raising its alert on the new coronavirus to the “highest level”, President Moon Jae-in said yesterday, as the country reported 123 new infections.

South Korea has seen a rapid surge in the number of coronavirus cases in recent days after a cluster of infections emerged from a religious sect in the southern city of Daegu last week.

The national toll of 556 cases is now the highest outside China, apart from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.

“The COVID-19 incident faces a grave turning point. The next few days will be crucial,” Moon said following a government meeting on the virus.

“The government will raise the alert level to the highest level of ‘grave’ according to experts’ recommendations and drastically strengthen our response system,” Moon said.

Officials wearing traditional guard uniforms and masks stand in front of the Deoksu palace in downtown Seoul, South Korea. PHOTO: AP

He also urged officials not to hesitate from taking “unprecedented powerful measures” to contain the outbreak.

Yesterday, South Korea reported 123 new cases and two deaths, taking the countrywide toll to four. One of the victims was a patient being treated for mental health issues at a hospital in Cheongdo, a southern city linked to the religious sect where around 100 new cases were reported.

Among the latest infections, 75 involved the Shincheonji Church in the nearby city of Daegu, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

More than 300 cases have been linked to the church, starting with a 61-year-old woman who developed a fever on February 10 and attended at least four church services in Daegu before being diagnosed.

Some 9,300 Shincheonji members in Daegu have either been quarantined or have been asked to stay at home, said KCDC Director Jung Eun-kyeong, with more than 1,240 saying they had symptoms.

Daegu – South Korea’s fourth-biggest city, with a population of 2.5 million – reported more than 90 new cases yesterday, bringing the city’s total to 247, mayor Kwon Young-jin said.

“The crisis level of Daegu and the North Gyeongsang province is grave,” said Kwon, who advised locals to stay indoors.

The mayor asked all Shincheonji members with symptoms to come forward and be tested.

Authorities have yet to reach around 670 members of the church.